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The Green Party: Critique, Response, and the Illinois Greens October 2007 Membership Meeting


 

Last June, I wrote an article, "Wo sind die Gruenen?" asking "Where are the Greens?" (http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3133). This was in response to my concern about a lack of boldness in the Greens, and what seemed to me almost no public presence in the time of great need for social leadership in the US to challenge the ravages of Bush and the Democrats. While I recognized the fact that the Green candidate for governor in my state of Illinois had gotten over 10% of the popular vote (over 360,000 votes), I wrote that the Greens had been largely invisible since the 2006 elections.

In response, I got a number of very thoughtful responses from Greens all over the country. Some had thought I’d been unfair, while others thanked me for recognizing their importance, and demanding that they do more. A number of people wrote and told me all Greens were doing in their particular area. And one-a leader in Illinois-encouraged me to get more involved in the Greens, mentioning the state-wide membership meeting in October.

 

I thought I’d follow-up-something many of us are very bad at doing-and bring readers up to date with developments from my perspective since the article appeared as a Z Net "Commentary."

 

In response to my article, as I said, I got a number of responses. Most were quite thoughtful, and I appreciated their author’s efforts to address questions I had asked; others, unfortunately, were not. But in reading the responses, I was struck with the almost rampant "electoralism" exhibited; the overwhelming response was about "our candidates," and how well they had done, etc., etc. However, this was not focusing on electoral politics as one part of a larger effort; for many, it was the total focus on electoral politics.

 

Nonetheless, it is clear that Greens are working across the country to change the electoral options available to the public. They are developing sophisticated efforts to win in these arenas. And many Greens are doing more than just focusing on electoral politics; however, when this happens, this seems to be on an individual basis and not as part of a coordinated approach to changing this country by the Green Party.

 

On Saturday, October 13, I took advantage of the invitation to attend the Illinois Green Party’s Fall 2007 Membership Meeting and Campaign School in Crystal Lake, about an hour northwest of Chicago on the train (www.ilgp.org). It was announced that 65 people had shown up by the opening of the meeting, but that another 35 had pre-registered, and organizers had expected more folks to show up throughout the day, as apparently happened.

 

(I did not attend as a journalist, but rather as a long-time activist, academic and writer, so these are my impressions, and not any attempt at balance or completeness: basically, my personal goal was to see if and how I could work with/get involved in the Green Party in Illinois. I only attended the first day of the two-day meeting.)

 

First of all, and I think this needs to be recognized by all of us on the left, however defined: the Green Party is very serious about succeeding in the electoral arena and, at least in Illinois, they are growing and attracting more candidates who appear to be quite serious and generally strong public representatives of the Party. It was reported, for example, that in 2006, the Illinois Greens had attracted more candidates than ever before, and that already this year, they had attracted more candidates than in 2006 ( http://ilgp.org/elections/2008-primaries/). They presented many of these candidates as a group at the meeting, with people running for various positions at the county, state and federal government (US Representative) levels. The Illinois Greens hope to field over 108 candidates in elections across the state in 2008-and where there was only one Green candidate for Congress who has ever appeared on the ballot in Illinois, already there are nine ILGP members who are currently candidates, with more expected, a byproduct of the Green Party getting major party status in the state.

 

(It should be noted that many of the candidates who stood up were generally younger-20 and 30ish-white males, with only a limited number of white women and people of color. This imbalance was publicly recognized, as was the need to encourage more women and more people of color to run for office.)

 

There were two highlights to the meeting. Brent McMillan, Political Director of the national Green Party (www.gp.org), conducted a number of workshops throughout the day-I’ll say more below. And two Green Candidates for President, Jared Ball and Kent Mesplay, were present and spoke to the gathering.

 

McMillan, who is originally from Indiana but who was had gotten his political spurs in the Seattle area, is very impressive. This man really knows his stuff about electoral campaigns, and conveyed it in a manner that was encouraging, friendly, open, and knowledgeable. He had run as a candidate for the Seattle Monorail Authority Board in 2003, and though he lost, he learned much that he is able to convey to new candidates.

 

During the day, McMillan not only presented a talk on "What Every Green Candidate Should Know"-presenting material gathered from Green candidates across the country, and adding his own experience from Seattle-but he also conducted workshops on fundraising and working with the media. All of these presentations were extensive and quite detailed-to give one example, he was insistent on Greens getting campaign material printed in union print shops and getting the union "bug" on their material, along with the recycle symbol. It was this attention to detail that I found both useful and impressive.

 

But the day’s meeting was not just only to listen to Brent McMillan. There were panel presentations by current Green officeholders, as well as sessions on petitioning, running large and small meetings, as well as presentations on electric cars and the Illinois Green’s "power to the people" campaign, focusing on energy policy and job creation. There was also a fundraising dinner and a "silent auction" to help raise money for the Party’s efforts.

 

During the fundraising dinner, we heard from Rich Whitney-who, as candidate for governor in 2006, had gotten over 10 percent of the statewide vote-as well as from two presidential candidates, Jared Ball and Kent Mesplay.

 

Whitney was impressive, and like all the Greens who spoke, tied environmental devastation to the state of American democracy, the war, etc.-in other words, none who I heard speak were just a one-note symphony, as I had suggested in my earlier article. I was delighted to see this, and was encouraged as well. My sense of Whitney, who I had not heard speak before, was of a man who was gentle and caring, but was passionate in his belief for social change and who has, and conveys, a strong sense of personal integrity. In a state such as Illinois-arguably the most corrupt state in the country-where there is widespread disgust on the state level with both the Republicans and Democrats, he will be an impressive candidate should he run again (www.whitneyforgov.org/joomla/index.php). And with the personal respect shown by others at the meeting for him, I believe we will be seeing more of him.

 

The two presidential candidates present-Jared Ball and Kent Mesplay-presented very different approaches to politics. Mesplay, an environmental engineer and activist from San Diego, is very knowledgeable and low key (www.mesplay.org)-and, unfortunately, he didn’t do very much for me.

 

Jared Ball, on the other hand, did. Ball, an academic and activist from Washington, DC, is an educator (www.voxunion.com/jaredball). An African-American and US Navy veteran, Ball argues that that we must address the reality of the US being an imperialist nation because, without that, we will never be able to address the US’ role in the world, and all of the internal problems in this country. He argues that there is an interactive relationship between how the US acts internally-for example, we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world (not just among industrialized countries), and that about 50% of all imprisoned are black or Latino-and how this country acts globally: he asks, if we treat our people that way, how can any one expect that we treat foreigners differently?

 

Along with his own effort, which included a power point presentation, Ball brought a long a Hip Hop activist and friend who goes by Head ROC. Head ROC performed as well.

 

What was both interesting and exciting about both efforts here was that Ball had decided that he and his campaign had to directly confront the issue of history of this country and the system of white supremacy that has so mangled the people and development of this country-as Head ROC put it, we had to "move ahead and make this country all it could be," not "reclaim the old America." But as I saw it, this was not an effort to "guilt trip" whites-and most of the audience was white, as am I-but was an effort to get whites of conscience to join with African Americans and other people of color to finish tearing down the racial divide that keeps whites and people of color from working together to build a better world for all.

 

There are others who are vying for the Green presidential nomination as well, and I was surprised that they didn’t feel it worthwhile to come visit one of the most successful state Green Party’s annual meetings to present their campaigns for office. It seemed a major mistake.

 

Nonetheless, I came away very impressed with Ball. Obviously, a dynamic African American candidate could make inroads into African American and communities of color that the Greens have been unable to do to date. That cannot be brushed aside.

 

However, recognizing that, what impressed me about Ball was that he came before a white audience, and spoke forthrightly about the need for whites to join with people of color to challenge the remaining racial oppression in this society, as well as arguing that we need to confront the imperial nature of this country. This is politically risky, but it shows the courage of Ball to confront difficult issues-and he did it without pulling any punches, but in a way that appeared to get the whites in the audience to listen to him, and seriously consider his candidacy. And he also did it in a way that was not exclusionary: he recognized the need to address gender oppression, while also recognizing the needs of whites who are also feeling the threats of economic insecurity.

 

If Ball is representative of the quality of candidate that the Greens are attracting, then it looks clear that, over time, the Greens will become an electoral force-and the Democrats and Republicans are going to have to take them into account. My guess is that they will become a force in some states, as they are suggesting in Illinois, but that also means in a close presidential race, their efforts could have national ramifications. Ralph Nader, running as a Green candidate in 2000, didn’t cost Al Gore the election- Gore’s incompetence as a candidate and an unwillingness to address real issues were his problems-but a strong Green candidate could have a similar affect in the not- so-distant future.

 

However, all of that being said, what is my analysis of Green development to date?

 

I have come away with a greater appreciation for what the Green Party is attempting to do, and for the quality of people involved. These people are serious, and are attracting good candidates. And with people at the national level behind them, Green Party activists are learning to address issues, such as fundraising, that have been traditional weaknesses of progressive electoral candidates.

 

And, importantly, they recognize the importance of organization. This is something that many of the left have seemed to have lost: the strength of our analyses, the quality of our thinking, is quite high, but in this extremely individualistic social order of our’s-the result of the right’s political project since the late 1970s-we have to get out from behind our computers and engage with people, and build organizations. The Greens are doing this. This is, in my opinion, a very important project.

 

Yet I am still troubled by the limitations of their organizational focus. Yes, there are individual members and candidates who see the importance of electoral politics and the need for overall cultural and social change in this country. And some of these people have extensive experience in direct action and other activities outside of the electoral arena that they bring into the electoral arena. But this is hit or miss-it varies with the individual candidate. And my sense is that the younger the candidate, the less likely they recognize the value of extra-electoral politics-but I hope I’m wrong on this.

 

And, as McMillan admitted to me, people vote for the candidate, not the Party. Thus, good candidates will do well, but this has yet to transfer over to long-term support for the Green Party. And there is nothing to ensure that the Greens will attract good candidates over time.

 

What I don’t see yet is an organizational determination to develop leadership; what I see is a willingness to accept those who already are enough of a leader to put themselves forward as a candidate, and to try to build on that. That means that the Party is subject to volunteerism, and that’s not enough to ensure the on- going success of the Party. It also suggests that key activists will be limited to those highly educated and/or better off financially.

 

I argue that, for its continued success, the Party must work to develop leadership at the grassroots level, allow that leadership to develop in ways including electoral candidacy but not be confined only to that, and to try to generate as many good leaders/organizers/popular educators/ activists as possible. Along with that, and using a set of concentric rings, the Party should consciously work to move those who will vote Green but who are not members of the Green Party into the category of voting Green and becoming members of the Party, to becoming active members of the Party.

 

Tied into these things is education. The Green Party has to develop an education process for its activists. Sure, electoral education is important, and certainly Brent McMillan’s work is doing this. But it is not enough.

 

The Greens need to find ways to develop an educational process that will both overcome the terrible mis- education we have all suffered-especially at the high school level. They need to address our imperial history-how many Americans know that the US had a war with the Philippines around the turn of the 20th Century and that US forces killed between 10-20% (500,000-1 million) of the entire Filipino population?- as well as our history of racial oppression in this country, such as the basis for US industrialization was the slave system that was based on the brutalization and mistreatment of Africans?

 

We cannot assume that most Americans know these and many related facts; I know from teaching in Indiana that they simply do not, but because I’ve taught other places as well, I also know this problem is not limited to Hoosiers. However, many people are troubled, that they know things are not going well, and that, if addressed with respect, can be won to understand this.

 

The Green Party can win votes, and they can build organization. But this is not enough for the social and cultural change that we and all of the people of the world need. Although the Green Party appears to be attracting many candidates with high degrees of integrity at this time, there are no guarantees, should they win office, that they will continue to act in this way. Over time, in fact, odds are that they will change-and probably for the worse.

 

What the US needs is a total change in our approach to politics (just to focus on one sphere of society). Among other things, that means not just voting, or even supporting a candidate once every four years or so, and then going back to sleep. It means that we need people to get involved in their communities-including electoral politics-but to do it on an ongoing yet sustainable way. That means we need to attract good people, and work with them to transform our total social order in a way that is globally sustainable. That requires so much more than mere electoral work. But it also means that the electoral work cannot be downplayed or ignored, either.

 

The Green Party has made an impressive beginning-and it looks like it will continue to grow, and become more successful over time.

 

Yet in an era where we need-among other things-to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by the year 2030 so as to keep the planet from getting so hot that it releases massive amounts of methane from under the permafrost, putting global warming on an unstoppable "autopilot" leading to the end of civilization-see George Monbiot’s recent book, Heat-a "long march through the institutions" is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to join non-electoral efforts with electoral; we need to move from "either-or" to "both." But can the Green Party work to make this happen? Only time will tell.

 

I’m not convinced-yet. I’m not ready to limit my politics to their (somewhat) limited vision; the question for me is, do they have room for my politics under their tent?

 

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Kim Scipes is a long-time activist and educator, and teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. His web page-with links to extensive resources-can be found at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes, and he can be reached at [log in to unmask] He lives in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago.

 

 

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